Saturday, May 29, 2010

A mother determined

Mother is the new film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who made the excellent monster movie The Host (2006) It's a murder mystery wrapped in the story of a mother (Kim Hye-ja) frantically devoted to her mentally retarded son Do-joon (Won Bin). The nature of their strange relationship is established in the first scene in which she is chopping herbs in her shop (she sells herbs and practices acupuncture) while simultaneously keeping a cautionary eye on her son who is fooling around across the street with his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin) who to say is a bad influence is a gross understatement. Mother and son also sleep in the same bed, a mattress on the floor.

The story is underway when a schoolgirl is found murdered on the roof of an abandoned building and Do-joon is immediately arrested and charged with the crime after evidence easily linked to him is found. Mother is dead certain her son could never commit such an act and with intense focus and drive she goes into action as an amateur detective trying to find the real killer, if there even is one. Bo-joon's trouble maker friend even lends a hand in the investigation, able to succumb to violence against possible suspects while Mother watches close by.

Mother takes elements of conventional murder mystery/wrong man convicted films and twists them in disturbing and unexpected ways. The mystery is further complicated when unsettling layers of the characters are revealed. Mother may not be the reliable protagonist we'd expect her to be and we learn that her past behavior with her son may not make her the dedicated, however weirdly, mother she appears to be. No one is clearly innocent but never clearly guilty either.

Kim ja-Hye carries this entire film on her shoulders. Her strong performance is the centerpiece of the picture and she plays a complicated character who tangles with the audience's emotions and expectations. How crazy is this woman? Is she just so devoted to her son or is she truly disturbed?

The film is stylishly directed with an eye for great details. There are brief bursts of visceral violence that are shocking. With his earlier film The Host, Bong took the monster movie and added in a poignant story of a family. In Mother he does something similar. Taking a murder mystery and mixing it with a devastating character study of a woman trapped and doomed by her mental state, trying to help her son but only making things worse. The film may leave you scratching your head as it concludes ambiguously, leaving more questions than clear answers. But it holds your attention with it's powerful and convincing performances and masterful storytelling and direction.

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